NEW ORLEANS — Lost in the Tulane baseball team’s light-hitting, disappointing season has been some lights-out pitching.
Historically bad at the plate, the Green Wave (22-21, 7-8 Conference USA) has climbed above .500 for the first time since late March because of one solid performance after another on the mound. Still, that record leaves Tulane nowhere near regional at-large berth consideration as it prepares to entertain Houston ( 28-17, 7-8) in a three-game series starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
“That’s the most disappointing thing about where we are now because I’ve had clubs that had 50-plus wins that did not have the quality pitching depth that we have on this club,” Tulane coach Rick Jones said. “You are looking at some real quality starters and some guys out of the bullpen that have been really good for us.”
Tulane’s team ERA is 3.20, which is lower than any season-ending ERA for the Wave since 1980. The changes the NCAA made in its aluminum bats at the start of 2011 have reduced run-scoring dramatically across college baseball, but Tulane’s pitchers have been particularly dominant recently.
The Green Wave limited its last 10 opponents to 29 runs, with no team scoring more than four. The list includes third-ranked LSU, which scraped past Tulane 4-3 at Alex Box Stadium on April 24.
“Our pitching’s been great the last three weeks,” said senior third baseman Garrett Cannizaro, who capped off a 3-1 win against UNO on Wednesday with a diving stab of a hot grounder and long throw to first to end the game. “When you have four, five or six pitchers like we do that are throwing extremely well, it’s very positive going into the conference tournament.”
It also provides a stark contrast to Houston, which was 23-5 at one point but has dropped 12 of its last 17 — primarily because of shaky pitching. The Cougars, who ended a six-game slide by beating Louisiana-Lafayette 6-4 on Tuesday, lost weekend games by scores of 19-13, 15-1 and 11-1 (twice) in April alone.
Tulane counters with Friday starter Tony Rizzotti (5-3, 1.83 ERA), Saturday starter Alex Byo (2-4 2.94 ERA) and Sunday starter David Napoli (4-2, 2.05 ERA).
The strength does not stop there. Long reliever Kyle McKenzie went five scoreless innings against Marshall on April 26 after inducing an inning-ending double-play ground ball to the first batter he faced against LSU. Freshman closer Ian Gibaut is second in Conference USA with 10 saves and picked up his second win of the year last Saturday against Marshall by throwing three hitless innings.
A win Friday would give Tulane its first four-game winning streak of the season. The Green Wave swept a doubleheader from Marshall last Saturday before beating UNO.
“We’re on a roll right now,” Rizzotti said. “I think we’ve caught them (Houston) at the best time we could. We want to go on a really long winning streak, go into the conference tournament and make some noise.”
They have a huge advantage in experience on Houston. Tulane starts four seniors and two redshirt juniors.
Three of the Cougars’ top four hitters are freshmen, and it was four out of five until another freshman, Kyle Kirk left the team in mid-April.
“They went guns blazing last year as far as recruiting was concerned,” Jones said. “They brought in a ton of guys. They went after not just quality but quantity and we don’t know a lot about them.”
At this point, the Green Wave is more worried about its own issues anyway. Last in almost every Conference USA offensive category, Tulane managed just five hits against UNO, nearly wasting another stellar pitching performance — this time from Randy LeBlanc.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” first baseman Sean Potkay said. “A lot of guys had big plans going into the season and felt really good about their swing and where they’re at, especially with three years experience, and we haven’t gotten the results we worked for and expected to have. It’s just as frustrating for the pitchers knowing they have been doing their job all year long.”